• Dr. Timothy Smith

Article: Would You Board a Plane with No Pilot?

Photo Source: PxHere

How about this question--would you trust your life and the lives of your family to a pilotless aircraft run entirely by autopilot? Autopilot refers to a system that shifts the burden of flying an aircraft from the pilot to a device that monitors and controls the plane’s functions and direction. Before autopilot, maintaining the altitude, speed, and direction of an airplane required constant hands-on attention from the pilot, resulting in pilot fatigue after many hours over long distances. As airplane technology improved, they could fly greater distances. To relieve pilots of the burden of constant vigilance over hours of flight time, engineers invented autopilot mechanisms to support human control of the aircraft.

On December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, The Wright Flyer piloted by Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first-ever heavier-than-air motorized flight. This historical flight at a speed of only 30 miles per hour marked the dawn of the aviation age. The first demonstration of flight ignited the imagination and inventiveness of people all over the world, catalyzing rapid and tremendous advances in aircraft technology. In less than ten years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, World War I witnessed aircraft playing roles in surveillance, bombing attacks, and aerial dog fights. In 1919, Alcock and Brown made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1930s, commercial aircrafts such as the DC-3 carried passengers all over the world.

Engineers have improved all aspects of aviation such as speed, carrying capacity, range, and the introduction of autopilot to support ease of aircraft operation and safety. In 1912, the Sperry Corporation introduced the first airplane autopilot that used sensors and hydraulic controls to keep a plane level and on course so that the pilot could fly hands-free. Since then, more sophisticated and comprehensive autopilot mechanisms have transformed aviation. Today, many commercial aircraft have sophisticated autopilots that can control most aspects of flight following takeoff and up to the landing.

Recently, aircraft giant Boeing demonstrated their optimism toward pilotless aircraft with a $450 million investment in autonomous air taxis in a joint venture with Google founder Larry Page. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Page and his Silicon Valley startup, Wisk Ventures, are developing an artificial intelligence-driven autonomous, electric air taxi that can carry three to four passengers on short trips in and around cities. (wsj.com) According to Bruce Crumley of Drone DJ, “The canary-yellow Wisk prototypes get their vertical lift from 12 individual rotors attached to a 36-foot fixed-wing and thrust from a tail-mounted propeller. When they first go into service, Wisk eVTOL air taxis will have a maximum 25-mile range on a single charge, and reach top speeds of 100 mph. The craft will operate autonomously, with remote human monitoring.” (drondj.com) Boeing has a good deal of company in the air taxi development space with venture spending coming from competitors Airbus and Embraer as well as the US Air Force.

With the technology of pilotless aircraft improving daily, the question remains—will people trust their lives and the lives of their families to a pilotless aircraft? ANSYS Corp. is an engineering firm that develops very sophisticated, physics-based simulation systems for product design, testing, and operation. They have a vast collection of products, including 3D design and autonomous vehicle simulation, including pilotless aircraft. In June of 2019, ANSYS released a survey they conducted to gauge the willingness of the public to accept and use pilotless aircraft. (ansys.com) The paper called “ANSYS’ Global Autonomous Vehicle Study” found that “While 70% [of those surveyed] are ready to fly in an autonomous plane in their lifetime, only 58% are willing to board a self-flying plane in the next decade. Twelve percent insist on waiting longer than 10 years.” The survey involved over 22,000 adult respondents in major markets like the US, Japan, Europe, India, and China. The survey also found that 83% of younger customers in the 18-24-year-old range expressed a willingness to use a pilotless plane in their lifetimes compared to only 45% of people over 65.

With massive investment in pilotless airplanes and an apparently willing populous, the age of autonomous commercial flight will soon transform from fiction to fact. However, some pilots express a very different point of view--pilots play an indispensable role in flying and managing an airplane, especially in challenging conditions. The part of the pilot has changed with more advanced automation, but the pilot works with the automation, not as a babysitter of it. For example, an automated landing function called ‘autoland’ has been approved for some airplanes. According to Flight Deck Friend, an industry resource for pilots, not all commercial aircraft have the autoland function. Moreover, autoland only works in specific conditions, such as crosswind below seventeen miles per hour. Only 1% of commercial landings use autoland at all. (flightdeckfriend.com) As for takeoff, commercial pilot Patrick Smith states on “Ask the Pilot,” a full 100 percent of takeoffs are manual, “There is no such thing as an automatic takeoff anywhere in commercial aviation.” (askthepilot.com)

One cannot but marvel at the remarkable strides in aviation technology from the first manned, heavier-than-air flight on a beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 to the vast aviation industry of today, moving millions of people around the globe every day. Advances in aeronautic technology have significantly increased aviation speed, range, and safety. The autopilot developed almost as soon as flight itself to reduce pilot fatigue. Sperry’s early autopilot kept a plane level and on course. Today, autopilot in commercial aircraft can control almost every aspect of flight following takeoff through landing, significantly changing the pilot’s role in flying the plane. Private industry such as Wisk Ventures and Boeing proposes a new aviation era with pilotless aircraft. Surveys indicate a majority of people feel comfortable with an automated pilot flying the plane. However, the recent, tragic Boeing 373 MAXX crashes due to software errors remind us of the dangers inherent in flight and automation. Some pilots question the future of pure automation. They see a more advanced integration of automation with the pilot. Automation will have to demonstrate superior safety to human-piloted aircraft under challenging conditions before committing to going pilotless.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.